“By providing more equitable access to financial assistance for food, healthcare, and other basic needs, we increase economic opportunity for those who need it most.”
Trooper Sanders is CEO of Benefits Data Trust, a nonprofit that uses data, technology, policy change and direct service to help people tap the more than $60 billion in unclaimed benefits that support critical needs such as food security and health care. Sanders’s past work includes eight years as a social impact and policy advisor to business and philanthropic leaders. He has also held White House policy staff positions during two administrations, serving as an advisor on mental health and military family initiatives. Trooper earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, and holds two master’s degrees, one from the London School of Economics, the other from the University of London.
Generocity: Generocity’s ADVANCE focuses on “advancing” both your mission and your career. What are the benefits of hearing from other organizations in the Philadelphia social impact sector? How have professional development experiences helped you deliver on funding goals for your organization?
Sanders: Benefits Data Trust (BDT) is a Philadelphia-based, national nonprofit providing better access to public benefits for food, healthcare, and other critical needs helping people live healthier, more financially secure lives. Benefits access supports the missions of others in the social sector by putting government programs to work to make families better off and communities stronger. Getting to know and sharing professional development experiences with colleagues across the city’s social impact sector improves our capacity to advance our mission and ensure we can support people and families in Philadelphia and across the country for years to come.
Generocity: 2020’s economic turmoil has significantly impacted, largely in a negative way, the livelihood of our socially-driven organizations. Has your organization found any creative ways to preserve budget, raise donations, or acquire new funding?
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Sanders: Due to the nature of our work, BDT is needed now more than ever to help support individuals and families who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn. We are extremely grateful to our funders for their generosity as we have been awarded additional and flexible funding to help increase capacity to meet the moment.
As we have more aggressive goals than we did prior to the pandemic, we have increased our staff by 24% and expanded our services in Philadelphia, and other locations to better serve our communities. These efforts have allowed us to continue to transform benefits access across the country and support our contact centers which have seen as high as a 145% increase in calls since the onset of COVID.
Generocity: In July, Generocity launched TRACE (Toward Response and Community Equity) a year-long initiative tracking Philadelphia’s response to a pandemic, an economic crisis, and systemic racism. In the midst of COVID-19, how has your organization adapted to meet the changing needs of your stakeholders? What do you hope to learn at ADVANCE that will help you better serve our community?
Sanders: Since the pandemic began, we’ve experienced higher than average and faster response rates to mail and text outreach. Many people calling are applying for benefits for the first time and more people calling are eligible for benefits. We have expanded our use of hotlines to reach more people and accelerated policy efforts streamlining benefits access. BDT expects to have expanded support available for the duration of the emergency.
Generocity: Our nation is currently grappling with the many ways systemic racism infiltrates our society: it affects our policing system, our education system, housing, health care, and more. Through your work, how do you advocate for racial equity? How can ADVANCE help you create a more diverse, inclusive, equitable organization?
Sanders: Our work is even more vital since the onset of the global pandemic and resulting economic downturn, which have disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), as well as marginalized vulnerable populations including seniors, children, and others.
Research shows that poverty would be nearly twice as high if not for public economic assistance programs. But there are a variety of barriers that limit access to these vital resources – that’s where we come in.
BDT makes connecting to these programs easier, better, and more effective for anyone who needs them, regardless of race, age, religious belief, ability, gender, background, sexual orientation, status, education, or location. Our work transforms benefits access by igniting policy change, implementing targeted outreach, creating personalized assistance, and using data and tech for good. By providing more equitable access to financial assistance for food, healthcare, and other basic needs, we increase economic opportunity for those who need it most.
Generocity: During these physically isolating times, innovative technology has become increasingly important. How has your organization used technology to solve the unique challenges posed by COVID-19? What has helped you, your team members, and your stakeholders stay connected?
Sanders: At the onset of COVID-19, within one week, BDT had to pivot to a remote workforce, and get everyone home and equipped so they could do their job in a safe and secure environment, and be ready to handle the influx of requests for assistance that were forthcoming. This transition wouldn’t have been as successful without the generous and rapid support from many of our partners, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Walmart Foundation and The PEW Charitable Trusts.
In addition to opening new hotlines to support those in need, we’ve also been using new technology to meet people where they are.
Using an interactive texting campaign, BDT worked with Aetna to help its members continue Medicaid enrollment and connect them to additional public benefits improving health and wellness.
In addition, in 2019, BDT launched a chatbot in partnership with the College Board to provide dynamic, SMS-based assistance for high school seniors to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a critical part of helping low and moderate income students enter and complete college. In May 2020 we made the chatbot available to the general public in response to need due to the pandemic. High school seniors can sign up at getfafsahelp.org.
Sanders is the second profile in our Forward Focus series, a series of stories highlighting the experiences and work of nonprofit leaders in Philadelphia. The goal of the series is two-fold: 1) to provide insight on shared challenges in the social impact sector and 2) to help nonprofit professionals get the most of Generocity’s virtual ADVANCE conference on Nov. 12.
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